You are feeling utterly exhausted as you endure your child’s latest “meltdown”. You watch him (or her) helplessly as he (or she) thrashes about, yelling and screaming, and saying hurtful things to you and others. You desperately want to help your child but don’t know how.
For some of you, reading this scenario resonates with you. Observing angry or aggressive behaviour can elicit feelings of sadness, fear and frustration. You can’t seem to understand how your sweet, loving child can switch, almost instantly, to someone who seems inconsolable, uncontrollable, and unrecognizable.
In my practice, I share with families the theory of the Feelings Iceberg, which can be helpful in understanding a child or youth’s behaviours and guiding effective responses.
Consider the idea of an iceberg, bobbing up and down in the water. From the surface, we can see an intimidating structure with its unstable crevices and jagged edges. Its future appears to be unpredictable and potentially dangerous and harmful. If exposed to an iceberg in close proximity, we would probably try to avoid approaching it for self-protection. What we may not see, however, is the enormous monstrosity under the water, keeping the “tip of the iceberg” afloat. Our feelings can also be understood using this visualization. On the surface, we see the behaviour: the anger, the “meltdown”. What we may not see are the underlying feelings that may be fueling this behaviour. We define it as “anger”, but can it be something else?
Children and youth are experiencing a sea of conflicting and confusing emotions. Some of these can be labelled quite easily and accurately (ex. Happy, sad, angry, scared). Others may be more difficult as their vocabulary may not be as developed or articulate. And just like infants and toddlers, expressing themselves may be reflected through behaviours rather than words. Feelings, such as shame, loneliness, guilt, panic, and hurt may be misinterpreted as “anger”. So, when we try to employ anger management strategies, the strategies may be unsuccessful.
When parents are in this situation, they may punish the behaviour (which may be a justified and appropriate consequence). But if the child or youth is feeling something in addition to anger, those emotions are not being identified nor addressed. Remembering the following key points may be helpful:
- All behaviour is a form of communication. If we look past the behaviour and the words for a moment (however brief), we can re-direct our focus on the message that our child is trying to give us. This can include messages, such as “I am frustrated”, “I don’t know what to do”, “I am feeling misunderstood or unheard”, and “I am nervous”. Taking a step back before we begin to discipline may be helpful for us to ask ourselves, “What is my child asking for right now?”
- Patterns can be broken. Many times, parents learn the patterns of their child’s behavioural responses and try to avoid situations that may lead to these “meltdowns”. When it happens, we hunker down, board up our windows and wait for the storm to hit. Consistent response is definitely a positive parenting practice; however, the response should be effective in leading to the desired outcome, such as feelings of calm or de-escalation. Responding the same way and expecting a different response from your child, who can be concrete and unaware of the “lessons” that you are trying to instill, can lead parents to feel frustration and exhaustion. Changing the pattern does not have to be drastic. It can simply be one small link in the chain that can cause it to change its form (See #4).
- The behaviour may be an outlet or a form of coping. This behaviour may simply be the only way that your child can cope with the feelings and thoughts he (or she) is having. It may not be an effective way, but it is serving a purpose for your child. With any coping strategy, it can be replaced with other strategies with repetition and rehearsal. Introducing other ways to express or deal with their feelings may be helpful. Professional counselling can assist in developing and strengthening coping techniques, but other activities, such as distraction, relaxation and engaging in enjoyable activities can be encouraged at home.
- Disengage and Revisit when possible. According to self-regulation research, the developing brain may be incapable of rational thought or problem solving when overly stimulated or aroused. A child that is experiencing a “meltdown” may not respond to solutions and may appear to be oppositional to any suggestions that you may make, even if they are reasonable and realistic. When a solution is not possible, it may be crucial to disengage and revisit at a later time when the child or youth is able to focus and problem-solve. Disengaging also allows parents to take their own “time out” to de-escalate feelings of frustration.
By no means is aggressive and destructive behaviour acceptable. However, taking a few moments to consider the Feelings Iceberg theory to help understand what may be underneath the behaviour and words may be effective in fostering positive communication and conflict resolution.